What is modern photography? The answer is probably a little less ambiguous than you think. When I say ‘modern photography’, I’m not talking about the latest uploads to your Instagram feed. Rather, I’m referring to the Modernist Photography movement, which lasted from 1910 to 1960.
I know, I know. Not everyone finds a lesson in art history riveting. But every serious photographer should know about their roots. And, without the first Modern photographers, we’d think much differently about all those pictures saved to our smartphones.
Here’s the story of how photography became what it is today.
Photography: Art or Not?
Did you know that photography wasn’t always considered a form of art? It’s hard to imagine now that so many of us use our cameras as a means of expression. But, back in the early days of photography, there was plenty of resistance against its artistic merit
This selection from famous art critic Charles Baudelaire captures the disdain skeptics of the time held:
As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance…I am convinced that the ill-applied developments of photography, like all other purely material developments of progress, have contributed much to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius, which is already so scarce.Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art
21st-century translation? Photography is a medium for wannabe artists not talented enough to pick up painting. Of course, its ability to create true-to-life replicas was useful, in a scientific or historic context. But, in the eyes of many critics, a photograph had no right to be in a gallery or salon.
Naturally, 19th-century photographers set about proving this idea wrong.
From Pictorialism to Modern Photography
The first step to proving that photography could be art? For many, the logical answer was to create images reminiscent of existing art. So, Pictorialism was born.
Using techniques like color tinting, brushstrokes, and soft focus, photographers made painterly images. Valuing careful composition and traditional beauty, Pictorialism aimed to create poetic rather than straightforward pieces. The less a photograph looked like it came from a camera, the better.
Pictorialism helped suggest the idea that photography could be beautiful. But the turn of the century Modernists sought to further push the envelope. Why couldn’t an image that embraced the photographic process, in all of its accuracies, also be beautiful?
The greater Modernist art movement, simultaneously brewing, burst onto the scene in the early 20th century. Artists like Pablo Picasso began rejecting artistic traditions entirely. On the surface, it may seem counterintuitive that this age of innovation inspired photographers to photograph the world as is. However, seeing such radical works gain popularity was the push early photographers needed to break from the status quo.
Group f/64 and Beyond
Of course, not everyone was eager to embrace something new. For old school Pictorialists, the sharp, direct look of this new style was anything but conventional. So, the first modern photographers formed their own loose association out of necessity. Named after the smallest aperture diaphragm on a standard camera, Group f/64 welcomed the detailed depth of field that the title implies.
The original group members focused on a wide range of subject matter, showing off all the ways a precise photograph could be of interest. Founder Edward Weston challenged fanciful scenes with familiar items like shells, vegetables, and rocks. Yet, with a heavy focus on tones and textures, he managed to transform those banal objects into something captivating.
Renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams stood at the other end of the spectrum. His trademark? Breathtaking vistas of the American West. His technical mastery caught the attention of both commercial clients and his artistic colleagues.
Group f/64 even welcomed female artists, most notably Imogen Cunningham. Her sharp botanical photos bordered on abstract, but not because of any darkroom manipulation. Instead, she used composition and contrast to create images that forced viewers to step back and question what they were looking at.
Eventually, early skeptics like Alfred Stieglitz got on board with the modern movement. With the approval of the first photographic pioneers, ‘straight’ photography became more than a passing fad.
Though Group f/64 didn’t last for long, they effectively changed public opinion on what photographic art could be. Each member had the same views to work with. Yet, their stark differences in interpreting reality have inspired generations of photographers since.
Modern Photography’s Impact
What are the lasting effects of the modern photography movement? For starters, we’d likely never see many of the technological innovations we rely so heavily upon. By signaling that anything could be a worthy photograph, modernism invited hobbyists worldwide. No longer was the camera limited to a few select experts.
What’s more, people began to realize just how powerful the camera could be. As more photographers experimented, it became clear that images didn’t have to stick to the preconceived “art” or “information” binary. For instance, Paul Strand was inspired by the first modernists to use photography to promote social and political causes.
No matter where your artistic interests lie, it’s likely that you have modern photography to thank for it. This brief history lesson may not hold the answers as to what the next big trend will be on Instagram. However, there is one thing that you can take away with certainty – modern photography will never go out of style.